Even before Rev. David Ssebulime was born in his native Uganda, missionaries influenced his path. Prior to his birth, Ssebulime’s father Mbuga felt called to the ministry after missionaries traveled to Uganda to share the gospel. Ssebulime, along with his eleven siblings, witnessed their father’s preaching, teaching, and ministering to the poor.
Rev. Mbuga was killed in a car accident when Ssebulime was still very young. Already poor, the family’s circumstances went from bad to worse. “We lived in a mud hut and the thing was falling apart,” Ssebulime remembers. “We all moved into one room and it leaked. . . . It was terrible.”
Following his father’s death, a Canadian man named Ray Burnett assembled a mission team of Christian friends to help orphans in Uganda. After giving a ride to a young boy and hearing him sing, Ray was inspired to assemble a children’s choir to tour North America as ambassadors—and the African Children’s Choir was born.
Ssebulime laughs, “Everyone had to audition. Me? I was lucky. . . . I played the drum. I stepped up, played my drum, and boom! I ended up in the African Children’s Choir,” along with one of his sisters.
When the choir arrived in Canada for the winter season, they were greeted with warm, bright yellow jackets—Ssebulime’s favorite color at the time. At their accommodations, “every bed had a toothbrush and toothpaste—my first toothbrush,” he recalls. “And they gave us milk and some cookies, and we ate macaroni. And I also got my very first pair of shoes!”
For two years, the choir sang in churches, stadiums . . . even at the Grammys. Their host families introduced them to American culture while on tour: They learned English, how to write, and of course, they learned what American kids liked, too. “If [the host family] had kids, that was great because we played with the kids,” Ssebulime laughs. “And if they had TV, BMX, and a swimming pool, that was a winner!”
Back to Uganda
In Uganda, nothing much had changed. “We were still poor. We still struggled,” says Ssebulime. He managed to finish high school and decided to attend college in India, under the impression that it was an inexpensive place to live; he found out quickly that he was wrong. “I only had $700. But God showed me through,” he says. Out of the blue, a man Ssebulime hardly knew sent him more than enough money to keep him going.
Returning to Uganda after college, Ssebulime helped translate for a mission team from California. At their invitation, he moved to the United States in 2001.
Life in America, Remembering Uganda
Ssebulime worked in the San Francisco area in the financial industry, but he remained active in his church. “I loved God and working in the church,” he explains. “And sometimes, I would preach in non-denominational churches. People treated me as a missionary from Uganda.”
He married a woman from church, and they took mission teams back to Uganda to help raise money to finish the new church’s roof. These efforts led them to found an organization aptly named, “Raise the Roof Ministries,” and in six months, they raised $60,000. But they didn’t just stop there.
When Ssebulime was awarded a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University, he and his wife Marlene moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2010. “I’d been blessed, and I said in my heart the way I can give back is to build a school,” says Ssebulime. “That school today has over six hundred students.”
From there, Raise the Roof provided scholarships to educate Ugandan children. While speaking at Christ United Methodist Church (Franklin, Tennessee), Ssebulime asked for additional help. “Over forty-five people came and sponsored kids,” he recalls. “I came home crying.”
Only eight churches existed when Ssebulime’s father died, “and five of those churches died when he did. The good news is God is continuing to bless the ministry and it’s been rebuilt again.” Today, there are eleven schools and over three hundred churches.
“For me, God has always just opened doors, and it’s always been through missionaries,” explains Ssebulime. “And I still see myself as a missionary in America.” Today, as both a recipient and provider of mission work, he changes others’ lives as Missions and Outreach Pastor at Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, and his continued work with Raise the Roof Ministries.